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This will not be my typical post. I generally post for two reasons. Either the Orange One has done something ridiculous again, and I’m mad as hell, or (more often, I hope) something has inspired me. Right now I’m not inspired, and I am trying to discover why.

This weekend I read Toni Morrison’s book, Song of Solomon. I’d never read anything by the woman many consider our greatest living author, so I thought it was about time.

Song of Solomon tells the story of Macon (Milkman) Dead III, an African American (he would say negro) born in 1931 in an unnamed town in Michigan. The story traces Milkman’s life through his childhood and into his adult years. Milkman is forever trying to find out who he is, where he came from, the circumstances that led he and his eccentric family to their current situation. In the end he travels deep into the South and deep into his family’s past to find himself.

The book is well-written and it kept my interest throughout. Unlike The Sound and the Fury or Heart of Darkness, this book was anything but unreadable. It just didn’t speak to me. And I’m sorry about that. This entire post will be an extended apology for not loving a book I probably should love.

I think the problem is this, and it’s a terrible admission. I’m not really interested in where I come from. I don’t believe where I come from makes me who I am. I think I decide that myself.

There’s a great line in Joe Vs. the Volcano that sums it up. I know, I know. How dare I insert a goofy Tom Hanks movie into a discussion of our greatest living writer! Like I said, I apologize.

Near the end of the movie, when the Chief (played by a wonderfully bored Abe Vigoda) looks for a hero to jump into the Volcano and save his people, Joe says, “I don’t have any people of my own, Chief. I’m my only hope for a hero.” Joe is on a journey to find himself. This is his discovery. He is his only hope for a hero. By contrast, Milkman discovers that his identity, his very being, is tied up in where he comes from, who his “people” are. For Milkman, discovering who he is means finding out who his people are.

It was a good feeling to come into a strange town and find a stranger who knew your people. All his life he’d heard the tremor in the word: “I live here, but my people . . .” or “She acts like she ain’t got no people,” or: “Do any of your people live there?” But he hadn’t known what it meant: links.

Now it’s important to understand: I’m not saying Toni Morrison is wrong here. She’s probably right. For most people (and, I suspect, for African Americans, who’ve had their history purposely and viciously erased, even more than for most whites) who their people are is probably a critical part of their identity. I’m saying that I’m missing that piece. I’m missing the need for those links. I’m not entirely sure why.

Huck Finn has a moment similar to Joe’s (and in contrast to Milkman’s).

COL. GRANGERFORD was a gentleman, you see. He was a gentleman all over; and so was his family. He was well born, as the saying is, and that’s worth as much in a man as it is in a horse, so the Widow Douglas said, and nobody ever denied that she was of the first aristocracy in our town; and Pap he always said it, too, though he warn’t no more quality than a mudcat himself.

Now Pap is Huck’s father, so here Huck is admitting that he himself is far from “well born.” Of course, we know better. We love Huck, with his self-effacing goodness and his true heart that will lead him to (as he believes) throw away his own immortal soul rather than betray his friend Jim. “All right, then, I’ll go to Hell!” We don’t believe that Huck’s past condemns him. We believe that Huck himself, finding his own way in the world, is wonderful.

By contrast, Morrison presents characters I really can’t like very much, characters whose flaws don’t make me long for redemption but rather just push them away from me. I don’t think it’s Morrison’s fault, I really don’t, and Song of Solomon may very well be the great book Barack Obama and others believe it to be. I suspect there’s something missing in me that keeps me from loving Song of Solomon. In my heart of hearts, I just don’t believe that I am shaped by where I come from. I shape myself by the choices I make. I’m probably wrong. But I think this flaw is what caused Song of Solomon to not speak to me. I don’t have any people of my own. I’m my only hope for a hero.

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Art is the “unmistakable evidence of the best things our species is capable of creating, things made by the liberated thought, the acute vision, and the unquenchable creative fire of our shared humanity.” – Simon Shama, Civilizations

Those are the final words spoken in Civilizations, a nine-part history of art that aired on PBS this spring and summer. In this my next-to-last week of summer vacation, I binge watched the series – thanks to my wonderful wife Julie who got it for me from the also wonderful Upper Arlington Public Library.

Such a great series! I highly, highly recommend it even if (or especially if), like me, you don’t know beans about art. I learned so much – why Ramses II is the best-known of the Pharaohs (answer: he often appropriated old statues of former Pharaohs and changed their names to his), why domes became all the rage in Renaissance Italy (answer: Islam envy), even why so many Dutch paintings have dogs in their corners (answer: the Dutch artists valued scenes of everyday life, and Holland had lots of dogs). I was especially moved by the end of episode six, which compared landscape painting of the mid-19th century to the amazing Hubble Space Telescope photographs of our own time.

My favorite episode, though, was episode 7, “Color and Light.” I’ve always thought light and color to be among the most fascinating topics in physics, and I love the close connections between the science of light and the art created to study light.

The idea that color has to come from somewhere, that paint with vibrant colors wasn’t always available at every corner store, had a surprising effect on the history of art. I love the story of ultramarine, how this beautiful blue was so expensive it was once reserved for only the holiest of subjects, and how when the artist Titian broke that tradition by putting ultramarine on the pagan Ariadne it was a scandal.

I didn’t know that impressionists like Monet (my favorite) were so inspired by Japanese art. It really shows how interconnected and multicultural our world has always been. While studying Monet’s paintings of The Gare Saint-Lazare, a train station in Paris, one of the commentators made the observation that the impressionists were painting not only light, but time. I was struck by the idea that a painting can convey the feeling of change and movement. The final scenes of this episode, in which we plunge into a deep black circle painted on the ground (a work by Anish Kapoor called “Descent Into Limbo”) is something you need to experience.

Episode 8, “The Cult of Progress,” was a little bit heavy. As an optimist, I know that the desire to return to an idyllic past is mostly the result of a bad memory. Yes, the past century was full of horror and bloodshed, and we owe a great debt to the artists who captured that horror so vividly, lest we ever are tempted to forget. But every century has witnessed horrors, many of them far worse than those of the 20th. What strikes me about 20th century art is that the artists saw the inequity and the stupidity and weren’t afraid to show it to us. Instead of generals, they gave us soldiers slaughtered in the field. Instead of kings and queens, they gave us prostitutes in brothels. Instead of glories to God, they gave us rail lines that vanished into death camps. The difference, it seems to me, is that 20th century artists felt the freedom to show us what they saw.

And that brings us to the last episode and the modern world. I still don’t understand Jackson Pollock. But Episode 9, “What is Art Good For?” featured many other modern artists who amaze me with their ability to see beauty and expose injustice. I was blown away by the work of Kara Walker, using black silhouettes to expose the injustices of slavery and racism. At first I scoffed at Cai Guo-Qiang, a Chinese artist who uses gunpowder explosions to create art. But what comes from those explosions is incredibly beautiful – you have to see it to believe it.

Finally, the program highlighted artists who are speaking to the refugee crisis of today. These works, including a massive, all-black raft full of inflated figures by Ai Weiwei, will touch you in a way the nightly news just can’t.

I have so much to learn about art, just as I have so much to learn about music, and literature, and history, and science and math, too. The world is an amazing place!

My first book, called The Turtle and the Universe, was published by Prometheus Books in July 2008. You can read about it by clicking on the link above.
My second book, Atoms and Eve, is available as an e-book at Barnes and Noble. Click the link above. You can download the free nook e-reader by clicking the link below.
August 2018
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A blog by Stephen Whitt

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